Citizenship, Leadership and Civic Virtue

by Elias Blum

“Seriously, who the fuck cares about [our city’s mayoral election] when the choices are between a corporatist, a loudmouth douchebag and a dish-dog at a hipster downtown restaurant? At this point I’d actually prefer the racist homophobe who’s not running, and that’s pretty fucking sad.” <— Some random person on the internet.

Throughout the history of Western political thought, there has been a recurring tradition, from Aristotle and Cicero, through the likes of Milton and Rousseau, to contemporary thinkers such as Charles Taylor and Vaclav Havel, arguing that democratic government requires a healthy ‘demos’ and an engaged, interactive citizenry.

According to these critics, the neo-liberal concept of liberty, which is reduced to individual, market-based, utility-maximising choices, not only denies the validity of public, democratic decision making (Marquand, 1997; MacEwan, 1999), but is also harmful to the values and qualities of character necessary to sustain citizenship (Blond, 2010; Crick & Lockyer, 2010; Critchley, 1995).

The view that liberty is not licence, but a yoke that requires virtuous citizens to bear it, is also shared by the Christian Left tradition (Wallis, 2009; Milbank, 2010). As the social theologian John Milbank writes,

“[The] paradox is that egalitarian democracy actually requires a hierarchy both of values and of persons of excellence. Otherwise, money and sophistry co-conspire to destroy it, as they have in recent years. Democracy can only be sustained when there is a parallel, non-democratic concern with paideia—the formation of good character—which links talent to virtue and both to positions of appropriate social influence. Without the extra-democratic inculcation of character, democracy cannot enter into the debate about the good, which is the only legitimate and non-corrupt debate that can be held.”

Citizens, not Subjects

Political scientists, theorists and practitioners have put a renewed emphasis, in recent years, on the role of the citizen, and have begun to relearn the old lesson that democracy depends for its health, vitality and longevity, on good citizenship.

Unfortunately, the British Establishment’s view of ‘good citizenship’, much in vogue during Gordon Brown’s premiership, and having a miserable renaissance under David Cameron, is essentially authoritarian. One must be seen and not heard.  In economic life productive, in public life obedient: hold down a job, obey the law, pay your taxes, keep out of trouble, sing ‘God save the Queen’, get excited about the Olympics, hate foreigners. This is not democratic citizenship; it is oligarchic subjecthood.

For an independent Scotland,  we must articulate an deeper view of ‘good citizenship, one which is truly compatible with a democratic Constitution, and which builds upon the best aspects of Scotland’s strong civic and democratic traditions.This idea of good citizenship is neither slavish nor hedonistic: it rejects both passive obedience to the tyrannical power of the State, and the immediate gratification of unreflective personal desires, as unworthy of citizens.

Good democratic citizens will stand up for their rights, and also for the rights of others. They will take part in public life, not only voting in elections, but also learning about the issues and the candidates, thinking about public concerns, and trying to discern what is just, good, and beneficial for the whole of society. They will be willing to resist power when it breaks its lawful and constitutional bounds, yet to support it when it acts according to the laws and Constitution. They will understand that opinions differ, and whilst seeking to convince others of their views, will also be open to having their views challenged by others. They must have the ability to think clearly, so as to discern truth from falsehood, and to resist flattery and intimidation. They must be able to speak, addressing all as equals, and avoiding both arrogance and cowardice in their conversation.

Democratic citizens must be rooted in, but not necessarily uncritical of, their constitutional tradition – they should understand and defend the Constitution, yet never treat it as an idol.

Such citizens will not drop litter in the street, or leave dog turds on the pavement – not because a security camera is pointed at them, ready to slap a fixed penalty fine on them for the slightest infraction – but because they have a sense of connectedness to their fellow-citizens and as sense of responsibility for the streets on which they live, which makes them desire to beautify and not to defile. In sum, good citizens will exercise caritas reipublicae, or ‘loving care towards public things’.

This view of good citizenship is not in any way utopian. Civic virtue in a democratic state does not demand that each of us should be solely devoted to an abstract public good, to the exclusion of our proper economic occupations, our family and personal obligations, our social and cultural activities, or our inner spiritual life. Rather, it requires us to hold all these different spheres of life in the right balance, participating in each as fully and as excellently as we can – seeking not only our own profit or pleasure, but also the well-being and the edification of our fellows. This model of civic virtue is one which ordinary men and women can be expected to achieve. As Cicero reminds us, a sense of public duty is something ‘which nature has given to men that they may defend the common weal’, enabling us to ‘overcome all the enticements of pleasure and of ease’; it is not just for the likes of Scipio and Cincinnatus, but for ‘countless men who have individually contributed their share’.

Citizenship and Leadership

Some, however, have a bigger share to give. Their talents give them greater opportunities for service, their vision forces them to take the initiative while others wait and follow. These are the natural leaders of a democratic society.

Even amongst theorists and practitioners of democratic citizenship, little emphasis has so far been placed on the need for good leadership. Some, thinking they are being true to democratic principles, eschew all forms of leadership; but a demos without archons can hardly be a ‘demo-archy‘. Others, while recognising the need for leaders in a democracy, mistake popularity for virtue and a good smile for good character, as if the chief offices of the res publica could be adequately filled by a jobbing actors from toothpaste advertisements.

This lack of attention to good leadership is a serious weakness in many, if not all, modern democracies.  As is shown by the opening quote from a disgruntled citizen, who can only vote for one of three unworthy candidates, it is impossible to be a good voter when there are no good candidates. It’s hard, in other words, to be a good citizen without good statesmen.

If we care about the future constitutional order of Scotland and the well-being of Scottish democracy we should look not only to the written text of the future state’s Constitution, but to the ‘constitution of character’ possessed by citizens and political leaders.

We should regard the question of how to develop not only engaged and empowered democratic citizens but also virtuous and noble democratic leaders as one of fundamental importance which,  if not strictly speaking a ‘constitutional’ question, should nevertheless be taken as seriously as, say, the design of the electoral system or the process by Parliament chooses the First Minister.

Curriculum for Citizenship

Historically, the education system has been one of the most important means of promoting civic virtue in democratic societies. Considered in its broadest sense, education helps people to develop the skills, knowledge, and traits of character, that citizens need in order to enjoy their rights and perform their duties. A commitment to public education ought therefore to be treated as an integral part of the state’s foundation,.

Accordingly, many existing Constitutions devote an article to the education system; Article 23 of the Dutch Constitution, for instance, begins by asserting that “Education shall be the constant concern of the Government”.

Constitutional provision on education do not, usually, go into the details of educational policy or structure – it would hardly be possible or proper, in a Constitution, to do so. Neverthless, by including the principle of free, universal public education in the fundamental law of the polity, many democratic Constitutions recognize that education is not intended merely as a means of training people for employment in the feeder-chain of corporate capitalism; rather, education in a democratic society is a public good with a clearly moral and teleological purpose.

That purpose is to produce educated and virtuous citizens who are equipped to be members of a self-governing community, who can defend their liberty with the ballot box, the soap box and the jury box, and yet can use their liberty with moral responsibility and a sense of commitment to the common good.

Job-related training is important too, of course. We need plumbers who can plumb, builders who can build, cooks who can cook, hairdressers who can dress hair, and accountants who can account. These professional and vocational skills are acquired by training, a specialised application of our abilities for the purposes of production and exchange. It ought never to be confused with the sort of broad and balanced liberal-arts education which enables us to live well as citizens – because (and this is the most beautiful thing), in a democracy, we are all citizens first, before we are plumbers or accountants. It is our common citizenship that unites us.

If we see education as a means of preparation for citizenship, rather than just as a means of preparation for employment, then this should be reflected in the curriculum. To design a “Model Curriculum” would be an interesting exercise, but would be far beyond the scope of an article such as this. Two general thoughts on civic education might nevertheless be mentioned, albeit only as speculative ideas for further reflection.

Firstly, there is much merit in returning to an old-fashioned liberal-arts education. A foundation in classics, leading into such subjects as history, philosophy, modern languages and literature, not only teaches intellectual precision, but also trains people to deal with moral questions: Was Brutus right to kill Caesar? Did Antigone do well to insist, against Creon’s wishes, that her brother be given a proper burial? How should we act, when faced with those who would corrupt the republic for their own ambitious ends? What should we do when confronted with unjust orders?

Secondly, although minds can be developed in a classroom, building character needs open space. There is no substitute for doing purposeful and challenging physical activity in the open air. Basic skills such as how to read a map and how to start a fire have obvious practical applications, but the real lessons are more subtle; by learning to camp, hike or sail, the children are really learning how to lead without being arrogant, to follow without being obsequious, how to work with and to trust other people, and how to overcome minor personal discomfort for the sake of wider common goals.

So far, this sort of education, although emphasised in parts of the private sector, has been omitted from State schools. There would be some cultural and legal adjustments to be made, but there is no reason in principle why Scottish local education authorities should not be required to send children once a term to an outdoor centre in the highlands for some adventurous training.

All this conjecture on education, of course, is deeply unfashionable. It might even be regarded as somewhat reactionary, with its emphasis on classics and character. If it seems reactionary, however, it is only because consequences have not been understood. To offer all citizens a physically challenging, morally demanding, and intellectually ambitious education is, in fact, a radically democratic proposal; ignorance, baseness and timidity, which are the products of a poor education, provide the darkness in which every species of tyranny and injustice can thrive, but freedom can flourish only in the light of a wise, honest, temperate and courageous people.